Over time, people often revise their lists of childhood favorites, replacing the lighthearted, immature fare with films and books that reflect their adult preferences. Strangely enough, the things I loved as a child are the same things I love as an adult, and for well over twenty years, my favorite actor has been Kenneth Branagh, star of my favorite film “Henry V”.
When we were reading “Frankenstein” in high school, Branagh had just released his film adaptation starring himself as Victor and Robert DeNiro as the creature. My teacher and the rest of the class did not seem to share my enthusiasm of Branagh’s vision of the novel, and in response I wrote a passionate, lengthy defense that analyzed the various choices and changes. I’ve always admired the sheer creativity and energy of Kenneth Branagh’s work, and even when he doesn’t quite succeed in translating his passion to the audience, the images and performances he create are always memorable. (Side note: I saw a preview for the National Theatre Live production of “Frankenstein” and some of the visual choices look as though they were lifted directly from Branagh’s film).
Given my lifelong Branagh fandom, I was eager to watch his filmed performance of “Macbeth” in my local movie theater. I expected to see a great performance by the actors, but I had adjusted my expectations for the costuming and special effects to the low end of the scale. “It’s a play, not a film,” I reminded myself. “He won’t have the same budget as he did with ‘Hamlet’.” Ah, but clearly I had forgotten Branagh’s capacity to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
In an interview before the film, the co-director Rob Ashford mentioned that it was Branagh’s idea to stage the play in a deconsecrated church. The symbolic weight of such a setting infuses the mood of the entire production. Things which should be held sacred are now soiled and profaned: kinship, loyalty, even the bonds of friendship and love. When Macbeth asks “is this a dagger I see before me?”, a ray of light in the shape of a cross shines down upon the floor. It is an eerie moment when played out in a former church. The idea that God has “left the building” (so to speak) resonates with the feeling of despair in the later acts, the sense that order and reason have departed from Scotland itself. Even the association of churches with weddings adds another layer of meaning, for the play is very much about marriage and the interaction between husbands and wives.
The central aisle which serves as the primary “stage” is nothing but a crude trench of dirt. In the opening moments, a battle is staged to showcase Macbeth’s military valor. The scene echoes the battle of Agincourt in Branagh’s film version of “Henry V”–an ugly, desperate struggle in the rain and mud. This thick, grimy mud remains throughout the entire production, soiling the long, clean dresses of the women and caking the boots of the men. It is yet another visual reminder of purity changing to filth, a second kind of stain beyond the red of imagined blood.
This production finds so many ways to take familiar scenes and infuse them with new life. When Macbeth “sees” the long line of Banquo’s sons, a steady stream of actors emerge from the supernatural womb of a fluttering white sheet. A monstrous oracle summoned by the witches is thus transformed before our eyes into the ghostly vision itself. Later, rows of warriors carrying thatched wooden shields advance and retreat in a menacing dance that simulates the advance of Birnham Wood upon the castle. The perfectly executed choreography fills up the narrow stage and creates wondrous illusions.
I have to admit that “Macbeth” was never one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Yet under Branagh and Ashford’s masterful direction, this production has earned a place in my heart as one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. I can only hope National Theatre Live will one day release it on DVD or Blu-Ray so that more people can see this version of the play. It is one that deserves preservation for future audiences.